Many of the customs that we commonly associate with Christmas come from previous pagan or pre-Christian European backgrounds.
- The word Yule comes from an Old Norse word for a twelve-day celebration among Germanic people. It later became known as Christmastide.
- Mistletoe was prominent in the traditions of the Druids and the lore of northern Europe. The plant had no roots, yet remained green. The Norse associated it with their goddess of love Frigga, perhaps the origin of kissing under it, as we’ll discuss in a later article.
- The wassail bowl was first known in Scandinavia as the Old Norse ves heil. We are familiar with it by the more modern Anglo-Saxon “toast” wassail which means “be thou hale” or healthy and is traditionally celebrated on Twelfth Night.
- Holly was used for decoration in the twelve-day Roman holiday known as the Saturnalia, which was followed by twelve holy days ending on January 1, and is where we get the “Twelve Days of Christmas.”
To what extent Saturnalia traditions influenced Christmas or the reverse, is debated by scholars. While we hear of Saturnalia from Catullus in the 1st century B.C., the full descriptions of its traditions we learn from Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius, who lived in the early fifth century A.D., long after Christmas had been widely observed.
Contrary to popular belief, the “X” in Xmas is not an abbreviation for “cross.” Nor, as my mother believed, is it disrespectful, taking the Christ out of Christmas. Quite the contrary, it represents the Greek letter chi — which looks like our letter “X” — and is the first letter of the Greek word for Christ: Χριστός (Christos) which like the Hebrew word מָשִׁיחַ (Messiah) means “the anointed one.” You may be familiar with “XP” the chi-rho, the first two letters of Christos, as an abbreviation for Christ.
So Xmas really is shorthand for Christmas.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian